Games of the Pros

Games of the Pros

Monday, 21 October 2013

What other games do the pros play? We find out.

It’s no secret that the type of people who play poker for a living are also often attracted to the mystical nuances of game theory. To be truly great at poker, you have to be someone who is a natural at recognising and deciphering patterns, as well as possessing a knack for strategy and deep thinking. Also, most poker players are self-proclaimed nerds and games are fun. Here we take a look at some of the most popular games that tend to attract pro poker players like ravenous rabbits to a county fair giant vegetable competition.


Player: Elky

Described rather verbosely as a military science-fiction real-time strategy game, StarCraft is a franchise which has taken the gaming world by storm since its release in 1998. Players must choose one of three species to represent – Terran, Zerg or Protoss – before fighting tooth and nail (tentacle and antennae?) for power and resources in a faraway 25th century galaxy. The game is immensely popular – it has even become something of a national sport in Korea, where the celebrity status, cash and groupies enjoyed by the top players is most comparable to what we bestow on Premiership footballers in good ol’ Blighty. The most obvious skill that a good StarCraft player could transfer to poker is quick and efficient decision-making, something that is vital for any online grinder worth his salt. To merely say that a good StarCraft player must have speedy reflexes is something of an understatement, however. Pace is measured in Actions Per Minute (APM), and you won’t stand a snowman’s chance in hell of becoming a pro until your APM is around the 300 mark – that’s 5 actions PER SECOND. I may need a sit down just thinking about it, but it’s undeniable that having hands as dexterous and agile as tap-dancing spiders on ecstasy would be invaluable to all those 24-tabling sickos crushing the online cash games out there.

Who plays it?

The most famous StarCraft-player-turned-poker-pro by far is multi-millionaire Frenchman Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier, who won the StarCraft: Brood War Championship at the Euro Cyber Games in 2003 before retiring and turning his talents to poker. Since then, the man with the trademark bleach-blond hair and aviators has racked up over $10.6 million in live tournament cashes. As well as this, he is part of the elite group of only five players who have achieved poker’s coveted Triple Crown, secured by winning events at the three biggest tournament series in the world (the WSOP, EPT and WPT). ElkY has undoubtedly used the nifty-fingered skills he learned as a StarCraft champ in poker, currently holding the Guinness world record for most single table SnGs played in one hour (he managed 62, in case you were wondering). Plenty of other StarCraft pros have made the switch to poker, such as WSOP bracelet winner Dan Schreiber, but none have quite managed to reach the dizzying heights that Grospellier has achieved. Yet.



Player: Dan Harrington

It’s fairly easy to see the similarities between poker and chess. For example, Marcel Duchamp once described chess as having “all the beauty of art”, and what could be more hauntingly beautiful than a sick five-bet bluff shove all-in? Or a well-executed triple range merge – poetry in motion! Well okay, maybe that’s a matter of opinion, but there are still many necessary skills that good chess and poker players have in common. Both games require good self-discipline, a meticulous memory for detail, and consistent and dedicated commitment to self-improvement. As well as this, to succeed in either you have to be constantly looking at the future implications of your actions. Finally, just as one bad move in chess could lose you the game, one misplayed hand in poker could cost you either a hefty stack of cash or even your tournament life.

Who plays it?

Many successful poker pros have come from a background in chess, including 2008 November Niner Ylon Schwartz. At his peak, Schwartz achieved a United States Chess Federation (USCF) rating of 2408, meaning that he earned the highest title offered – that of Senior Master. Transferring his skills to the poker circuit saw him win a stonking $3,794,974 after being knocked out of the Main Event in 4th place by Peter Eastgate, and has since made three more WSOP non-main event final tables (winning his first and only bracelet in the 2012 $1,500 HORSE event for $267,081). Other notable chess masters to have success on the felt include Dan ‘Action Dan’ Harrington, whose prolific writings, including the Harrington on Cash Games series, have been praised as some of the best poker books ever produced. Harrington currently has over $6.6 million in live tournament winnings, as well as three WSOP Main Event final tables under his belt (with one win in 1995). His overall cash game winnings over the years are unknown, but after careful speculation and a lot of very specific and complex calculations, we’ve concluded that it’s most likely… bloody lots.

GOTP Harrington

Magic: The Gathering

Player: David Williams

To those born in the late eighties, the words ‘trading card game’ may trigger misty, pre-pubescent memories of playground Pokemon battles. However, Magic: The Gathering has plenty of adult devotees, as well as a diverse and varied selection of tournaments running all year round. First introduced in 1993, Magic is a complex simulation of a battle between two wizards also known as ‘planeswalkers’. Like poker, it is a game of incomplete information – you generally do not know for sure what your opponent holds in their hand, and successful players are those who possess the logic and intuition to make an educated guess. As well as this, both games are made up of a combination of chance and skill.

Who plays it?

Due to the similarities in the two games, poker players who have a background in Magic are a dime a dozen – in fact, there’s almost too many to list. Some of the most famous include 2004 WSOP Main Event runner-up and WPT winner David Williams, who’s made close to $8.5 million over his poker career, as well as high-stakes extraordinaires Isaac Haxton, Justin Bonomo, Scott Seiver, Mickey ‘mement_mori’ Petersen, and Richard ‘Tzen1’ Veenman. One major difference between the games is the amount of money available to be won – the earning potential you have as one of the best professional Magic players is severely limited, and certainly paltry in comparison to poker. As a result, many pros play Magic purely to unwind and have fun, while poker keeps them financially in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. We imagine that this style is the freedom to lounge around in a paddling pool full of money while being luxuriously massaged and hand-fed sushi sprinkled with gold leaf, but don’t quote us on that.

GOTP Williams


Player: Gus Hansen

One of the oldest board games in the world, various different backgammon sets have been dated to ancient Egypt, Rome and Persia. This originally primitive form of hustlin’ has certainly stood the test of time however, with million-dollar tournaments and a huge following even today. Like poker, the game is a mixture of strategy and chance, but a skilled player will tend to triumph over a weaker one in the long run. There are also many similarities in the ways you can choose to approach decision-making – Simborg’s law of backgammon states that when considering a move, you should put yourself in your opponent’s shoes and do whatever you think would cause them the most pain. This is essentially akin to many hyper-aggressive styles of playing poker, where the objective is to back your opponent into a corner by repeatedly forcing them to make difficult decisions.

Who plays it?

After going broke as a day trader on Wall Street, the now poker legend Phil Laak turned to professional backgammon for a living. The man who would eventually become known as ‘the Unabomber’ would often work punishing 80-hour weeks at the backgammon tables before he discovered poker, and has made over $3 million in tournament winnings since then. Other famous names that made a similar transition include Danish pro Gus Hansen, who was apparently world-class at backgammon before moving his focus to poker in the late nineties, as well as poker rock star Stu Ungar and high-stakes wizards Dan Harrington and Erik Seidel. You may have noticed that this list is made up almost exclusively of players belonging to the ‘older’ generation of poker. Whether this is a sign of a general decline in the popularity of the game, or just evidence that backgammon no longer appeals to the Starbucks-guzzling, hashtag-spewing youth of today is hard to tell. Either way, there may very well be a revival yet.

GOTP Hansen

Tags: Gus Hansen, Phil Laak, ElkY, Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, David Williams, Isaac Haxton, Justin Bonomo, Mickey Petersen, backgammon, chess